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An Abiding Love of Gunnery (2)

They stole out of the house through the Orangery in the warm, damp, spicy-scented half-light, into the summer dawn. Although the sun was up and already hot on their faces, the smell of dew was still in the air; the mist lay white in the valley, covering the stream on both sides halfway up to the deer-filled woods. They tiptoed across the stone-flagged terrace into the formal garden, raced along their "cutting-out expedition" route, traversing the low formal walls, avoiding noisy gravel. Once onto the lawn proper, they headed around the side of Broke Hall, disturbing only the rabbits, past the new sycamore, down the greensward slope to the boathouse by the hard.

The younger boy hero-worshipped the elder, his senior by six years. The elder, his essential kindliness stirred by the younger lad's admiration, had begun to emerge from the overpowering misery of his grieving for his mother. Her recent death had left him alone with his uncaring and insensitive father, the General, who expected far more of the boy than a 12-year-old could supply. Luckily, he was a fundamentally robust boy, given to outdoor pursuits, quite capable of finding his own activities, so the General's attempt to get rid of a nuisance by putting the boy with his cousins in Suffolk had turned out surprisingly well. However, since the only possible genteel company, the rather grand naval family next door at Orwell Park, had no children in their age group, the two boys roamed unsupervised, and very often found activities that involved lively mischief-making.

As the view of the Orwell River opened before them, they saw the cats and hoys and snows unloading in Butterman’s Bay into scows. They knew that the carpenters outside King's yard at Pin Mill were sharpening their adzes, planes, and spokeshaves for the day’s work. Lighters crowded around the tall barquentine with the strange name, scurrying to unload enough Baltic timber and Stockholm tar to lighten her in time for her tow up to Ipswich, where she'd load grain, beef, and malt for Helsingfors. The boys were well known on the river, not least for their unwholesome joy at sailing past Mr Lockwood's brig – “muggs, jugs, and chamberpots from Holland” - shouting enquiries about how many chamber pots they had on board, and whether any were loaded with Dutch shot.

The leader by three paces, slim, dark-haired, tall for his six years, cried "First one aboard shall helm, Jack!". The twelve-year-old, a more solidly-built light-haired lad, called back "Very well! But I shall manage the gun, Philip!"

They moved silently into the shadowy, tar-smelling dark of the boathouse, and regarded their objective – the punt gun. It had been made by a conservative gunsmith who was dead set against these modern notions of calculating in order to save on metal; no, he could only live with building his guns so well that none would ever harm the gunner, only the prey. Therefore the 8-foot-long muzzleloader weighed 90 lbs; the boys could barely carry it out to the punt; the three generous cupfuls of black powder (the keg removed without permission from the gun room of Broke Hall); the wads; and the projectile load, the truly ambitious quantity of nails, stones, and unidentifiable rusty lumps from the scrap bin, did not signify. They could not alone have got the long, grey, cold, murderous weapon into the punt without dropping it straight through the bottom boards; only with the aid of the boat davit on the jetty did they succeed. They located the gun’s trunnions safely in the cheeks of the mount, and panting, knelt in their positions. After pushing off from the jetty and heading out onto the river to seek a target, they plied their paddles with a will, as they dared not set sail, for fear of losing the gun through an overset.

Now the tide was full and slack, at the height of flood, and the last of the upstream current no longer balanced the light breeze coming over Woolverstone woods. The extra weight of the gun smoothed their normally jerky progress, the sun warmed, the breeze refreshed, giving the boys a deceptive sense of being in control. The next events therefore appeared to pass them from sunshine, warmth and complacency to cold, wet, and dark in an instant.

A flight of brent geese appeared from their roosting grounds upriver - Jack’s powerful paddle spun the punt to aim – he leant forward and pulled the lanyard of the flintlock – the overloaded gun fired – the recoil was far, far, greater than anticipated – the punt jerked violently backwards – the two kneeling boys rotated neatly around their knees and went head first into the river.

Stunned by the immense report, every living creature on the river turned to look in the direction of the punt. Those creatures that could, rose into the air, flapping and screaming their dismay. The human creatures dropped their tools and gawped – some, luckily, hesitated only for a second or two before moving purposefully towards boats.

Jack knew Philip could not yet swim, and a cold fear gripped him as he surfaced and shook the water out of his eyes. Worse, the ebb had begun in earnest and was sweeping them rapidly down river towards the Levington mud, where any creature, grown man or horse, could fasten and drown later, if not drowned now. While Philip was under the surface, Jack would not be able to find him in this murky water, filled with fine particles of glacial silt, where visibility could be measured in fractions of an inch. Scanning the surface, he saw a swirl, and dived powerfully in that direction. To his immense relief, his reaching hand found and grasped a cloth-covered arm, which he immediately dragged to the surface. When he looked around, the punt was not to be seen without the long search for which he did not have time, and it was anyway of no use: it would be impossible to climb into it from the water without oversetting it.

The Principle of Original Sin is completely applicable to small boys. However, the Almighty holds his hand over the truly innocent, those who do not commit harmful sin with wicked foreknowledge and deliberate intent, and is willing to pardon them if they are at once repentant. The next Jack knew, he and Philip were being hauled into a boat by two local fishermen, whose twinkling eyes, he thought, meant they appreciated the prank, until their amused jibes revealed that Mr Nunn the Broke Hall factor was standing on the jetty by the boathouse.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a sin committed in a public place, in a manner contrived to attract the best attention of every sentient being within a one mile radius, is not one to be later denied. They could only stand before Mr Nunn with downcast eyes, dripping, cold, and evilly mud-smelling, while he brought them to understand the depths of betrayal of trust involved in theft from a gun room left unlocked because they had been regarded as gentlefolk – the taking without permission of valuable equipment, which was subsequently endangered – the selfish wilful failure to consider the feelings of their parents, whose hearts would be broken by their loss, when choosing to risk their own lives – the consequences, possibly amounting to loss of livelihood, for others who had entertained and nurtured them – they should be clear in their minds that earthworms, compared to theirselves, were to be looked up to for an example of decorum, maturity, and moral behaviour.

Now thoroughly chastened, the boys made their way, still dripping, to the Hall, where Mrs Nunn the cook, who was far too fond of them, soon wrapped them up in blankets in front of the kitchen fire. They sipped hot soup from teacups of the third-best china, while their filthy mud-stinking shirts, breeches and hose boiled in the scullery copper, and Mr Nunn, lost in thought, locked away the purloined keg of black powder in the gun cabinet.

The rest of the day passed in a grey misery of repentance, of fear of a promised interview with Mr Broke when he returned from his business in Southwold, and of intense but ineffectual study under the furious eye of the hastily-summoned village schoolmaster. Later, in the last of the summer light, Philip, lying in bed face down because his bottom was so tender, his eyes just visible, said "This thrashing on top of the walloping we got when we ran away to sea has decided me, Jack; I shall not sin again; I always get caught. And I lost that beautiful leather purse with the silver plaque that Mama gave me." A pause, and then "But it was a prodigious thumping Admiral Vernon Manila galleon of a bang, was it not?", to which Jack replied with a smile, "And just think of the lovely smell!". At last Philip lost all his seriousness, smiled contentedly, breathed "Yes"; and then, "Would it not be wonderful if we could do that every day?"

The following morning, after a difficult interview with Nunn, Mr Broke wrote the first two of a series of letters that eventually resulted in Philip’s wish being granted, and Jack and Philip standing on the deck of the Shannon, on a June day in 1813, at sea off Boston.

On a fine summer's day thirty-five years later, two boys, George Aubrey and George Broke, ran out of Broke Hall and raced down Bathing House Walk under Mr Repton's lime trees. "Let's take the punt out and play at sinking the French", said George; to which the other replied, “I wonder why Papa will not allow us to take our little popguns out in the punt ...


© 2006 Tim Elliot